A rural Minnesota co-op is offering customers who participate in a demand-response program a hard-to-beat deal on community solar.

Customers of Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric (SWCE) who want to own a photovoltaic panel in a community solar garden and add a new electric water heater to their homes can have both for just $170.

The Owatonna-based cooperative has plans to build this spring a $250,000, 103 kilowatt (kW) community solar garden and wants to jumpstart interest in it, according to Syd Briggs, general manager. The utility has 250 tenKsolar 410 watt panels for sale, with individual panels priced at $1,225 after the initial $170 offer.

The $170 offer is good until the panels are sold, but it is limited to one unit per customer at that price.

The co-op began accepting applications for the water heater/community solar garden, dubbed the Sunna Project, earlier this month.

“We have a lot of members who are interested in generating their own electricity, or want to be off the grid, or want to contribute to being green, or see it as an investment,” Briggs said.

The community solar garden will be built later this year in conjunction with a 20 kW project that will be installed by Great River Energy, which supplies power to SWCE and 27 other cooperatives.

The electric water heater option builds off a current program that allow the utility to control electricity going to heat water from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. in single family homes. A free mixing valve provided by the cooperative as part of the deal will help the hot water last throughout the day, he said.

The hope is to eventually reduce or hold steady demand for power from peaking plants that only go into gear for a short period during high demand times during the day, he said. Ideally, the co-op’s power from wind turbines, which provide around 15 percent of its electricity, gets used at the time when wind is most productive — at night — to provide some of the energy needed for the water heater program, Briggs said.

“The more we can shift [load] to the night the more efficient our power plants are,” Briggs said.

The solar panels, meanwhile, can capture energy during the day and often reach their full potential at the same time peaking plants are tapped to meet demand.

“We’re using our renewable wind power to heat water at night,” he said. “We will be using solar energy to help our power output during the day at times when we need it the most.”

More than one third of the cooperative’s residential customers participate in the co-op’s existing electric water heater programs, he said, and those that are currently in them can buy their first community solar panel for just $170, too.

For customers in the existing program several caveats exist if they plan to participate in the Sunna Project, including the forfeit of their water heater bill credits for a decade. Still, some of that loss will be offset by their solar panel ownership. Briggs said a panel will likely slice $5 a month off a typical ratepayer’s bill, or around $60 a year.

Even if customers decide against having a new water heater installed the solar panels are a good deal, Briggs said. The $1,225 a panel cost is less than $3 a watt including installation, which makes it competitive with solar installed on rooftops.

Contracts last 20 years and can be maintained as long as customers stay in the cooperative’s nine county south central Minnesota footprint. The Sunna Project is open to all customers, including renters and businesses. The solar garden project does not require participation in the water heater program, although non-heater customers will pay the full cost of panels.

The community solar garden is among many being built in rural Minnesota, and Briggs says a second community solar garden could be in the offing. “We have planned — if needed — a phase two,” he said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

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